Out of the Ring
and Into the Den

 Very few Kennel Club terriers actually hunt.  Here's why.

Red Fox
Wasco Taxidermy Mount Manikin, 14 inch chest

"Was she the runt of the litter?"

I look up to see a slightly overweight woman walking her dog around the edge of a grassy parking area.

"No, ma'am. She's a hunting Jack Russell -- they're bred this size to do earth work."

"Oh yes," she sniffed, "groundhog holes are so small. Noodle's wasn't bred for that - her type were bred to go after red fox."

I look down the leash.  There sits a solid dog with thick legs, a cinder-block head, and a chest bigger than a mailbox, a very happy look on its face.

"Yes ma'am," I reply. "That's what they say. Noodles sure looks like a happy dog. How old is she?"

A working dog should fit inside a
mailbox, not have a chest as big as one.

Some variation of this conversation invariably takes place when I go to an AKC go-to-ground trial with my two terriers - a small female Jack Russell and a large male Border Terrier.

At one time or another in these conversations, I have been told that hunting terriers need long legs to "follow the horses" and that "short legs are needed for a dog to be able to go to ground."  I have been told that certain breeds have huge heads and jaws "in order to kill badgers," and that dramatically elongated heads "set the eyes far enough back that they can't be bitten by a fox."  I have been told that "colored dogs will get ripped up by fox hounds," and that the solid coated Border terrier is "the last true hunting terrier."  And again and again I have been told that, "the British fox is much larger than the ones we have here in America".

I listen, but I don't believe much of it anymore.

In truth, very few terrier owners hunt their dogs, and most terrier owners have never seen a fox much less a fox den.  In this increasingly urban world it is a lucky accident if the average terrier manages to nail a rat, field mouse or mole. Such accidental take is not the specialized work that terriers were bred to do, however.  As Captain Jocelyn Lucas notes in Hunt and Working Terriers (1931):  "Working terriers means, in sporting parlance, a terrier that will go to ground on fox, badger, or otter, and not merely a dog that will kill rats or hunt out rabbits."  

Badger and otter hunting with terriers has been illegal in England for nearly 30 years, however, and it looks like fox hunting will soon follow.  If Jocelyn Lucas were alive today, he would be standing in a visa line waiting to come to the U.S., where red fox, gray fox, groundhog, possum and raccoon are in abundance and where badger and nutria can also be worked in some states. 

If you want to hunt in America, all you need is a proper dog.

A Proper Dog

A "proper dog," of course, is harder to get than it sounds. 

For one thing, almost all the dogs you see at Kennel Club shows are too big to actually work.  In fact, this appears to be true in Great Britain as well where most hunt terriers are small ununregistered Jack Russells, patterdale-type fell terriers, crosses, or dogs of “pedigree unknown.”  The naturally small Kennel Club breeds that do exist rarely see hunt service as they are likely to have other failings as far as the hunter is concerned -- lack of gameness, lack of nose, lack of voice, or lack of judgment, to name just four common faults.

While nose, voice, gameness and judgment are all important attributes of a working terrier, no attribute is more critical than size. 

If a dog cannot get down a hole, nothing else matters.

Perversely, however, while size is the one characteristic of a hunting terrier that is easily measurable in the show ring, it is also the one attribute of a working terrier that is most shrouded in misrepresentation and ambiguity.

Consider the Border Terrier, for example:  the American Kennel Club standard for the breed says "the body should be capable of being spanned by a man's hands behind the shoulders." 

This is a ridiculously imprecise measurement. Which man's hands?  Does this mean there can be no women judges?  And if the average man can span a 19-inch dog, does this mean such a dog is actually capable of going to ground in a natural earth?  Finally, if the standard for the Border Terrier is supposed to reflect the requirements of a working dog, why is the entire shoulder and chest area of the Border Terrier – a clear determinant of whether a dog can actually go to ground -- afforded only 10 points out of a possible 100? 

Walter Gardner, in his book, About the Border Terrier, notes that “the earlier border, which was bred for work rather than exhibition, was certainly smaller than many borders we see today,” and describes Jacob Robson’s Flint, one of the most famous working border terriers, as weighing just 12 pounds. 

The typically show-ring border terrier we see today weighs half again as much and has a chest span of about 17 inches.

The fact that chest span is given such short shrift in the show ring is hardly surprising when one considers that many people think a dog has proven its worth if it can merely shove its head and shoulders into a den entrance.

In fact, a true working dog should be able to enter a fox den or groundhog sette and negotiate the entire pipe – from main entrance to bolt hole -- without having to be dug out of the ground.  In a natural earth this den pipe will be 15 to 40 feet long and will rise and fall, twist and contract, challenging the dog at every turn.

A dog that routinely fails this challenge is not a useful dog.  In fact, hunting with a large dog that cannot get past the first turn is nearly impossible, as it requires a team of diggers to sink a new hole whenever the tunnel changes direction, and in the end you may end up excavating the entire length of the den.

A large dog in a small hole is also a danger to himself.  A terrier that has to dig hard in order to move up a tunnel is a dog that has to push dirt behind it in order to make progress.  As earth is shoved to the rear, a dirt wall can easily form just behind the dog, "bottling" it off from its air supply.  Because a digging dog is working hard and breathing hard (as is the quarry) asphyxiation underground is a very real possibility.

A small dog, on the other hand, can simply scoot over small dirt mounds and around constrictions and obstacles.  Not only will such a dog face the quarry with more energy and more air, it will also have room to maneuver to avoid a bite and force a bolt.  A larger dog, on the other hand, may find itself face to face with the quarry, jammed tight in the pipe, already tired, and with a dwindling air supply.  Only tragedy can come out of such a situation.

A Fox is Not a Coyote

Ken James, who hunts his Wills View pack of Jack Russell terriers in the mountains and farm country of Western Pennsylvania, has measured the chest size of a wide range of terrier quarry.  His conclusion is that any dog with a chest larger than 14 inches around is going to have a very difficult time.


Average Chest Size

Smallest Chest Size

Number Measured


14 inches

12 inches


Red Fox

13 inches

11.5 inches


Gray Fox

12.5 inches

10.5 inches



14.5 inches

11 inches


Measurement from Ken James' book:
Working Jack Russell Terriers in North America: A Hunter's Story

What is fascinating about these measurements is how clearly they demonstrate a simple fact:  the chest size of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is almost exactly the same as that of the North American groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax). 

Many Kennel Club terrier owners find this hard to believe, and some argue that the fox dens they have seen have larger entrances than the average groundhog sette. 

This last point is true, but only for the first three or four feet of a red fox den.  Here, at the front entrance, the fox excavates the groundhog hole into a vertical oval so that it can bolt out of the den at a trot.  Farther back from this first three or four feet of excavation, however, a groundhog sette is generally left as it was found, with a fox able to exit the same carefully disguised bolt hole the groundhog once provided for himself.

Gray Fox
Wasco Taxidermy Mount Manikin, 14 inch chest

When confronted with measurements of American red fox chests, some American terrier owners will argue that the North American red fox is a different species than its European counterpart and therefore must have a smaller den.

This is simply not so. 

The red fox is an import, brought to the United States in the 1600s because the native gray fox would climb trees when chased by men on horses.  British redcoats, anxious to continue their fox hunting tradition in the New World, brought with them the quarry they required for their sport, and the red fox flourished as forests fell to fields.  Not only are there more red fox in America today than at any other point in history, there are also more groundhogs, more gray fox, more raccoon and more possums – all due to changing habitat which worked to encourage more of these agricultural opportunists.

In both England and the United States the size of the red fox is quite variable, with larger animals generally found in the north, and smaller animals in the south.  In The Working Terrier British terrierman D. Brian Plummer notes that he has caught fox as small as 6 pounds and as large as 20 pounds but that "the average weight for adult fox is roughly 14 pounds, and vixens are usually smaller than dogs." 

In his book, How to Spot a Fox, J. David Henry notes that the average adult red fox in the U.S. ranges from 5.5 to 12 pounds in southern states and between 11 and 20 pounds in northern states.  Henry reports that in Great Britain the red fox ranges from 11 to 16.5 pounds for dogs and from 10 to 14.5 pounds for vixens. 

In short, the British and American red fox are exactly the same creature and they are exactly the same size, with foxes on both continents having a mean size of 10 to 14 pounds.

It should be said that a 12-pound fox is not built like a 14-pound dog, but like a 12-pound tabby, with a tiny chest, and bones that seem almost elastic.  Fox biologist J. David Henry, in fact has entitled one of his books, Red Fox: The Catlike Canid in order to stress both the morphological similarity of the cat and the fox, and their nearly parallel hunting styles.

A 14-pound dog will find it difficult to follow a 10 or 12-pound fox to ground in a tight earth because, in all likelihood, a dog this large will have a chest that is at least 2 inches too big.

The dog you need in the field has a chest span of under 14 inches and will probably stand little more than 12 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh in at 9 to 12 pounds – a mere shadow of the dogs we typically see winning in the show ring.

A dog this small can follow a fox to ground and negotiate the average groundhog den with relative ease – they are, after all the same-sized sette. 

This last fact seems to disappoint some terrier owners.  Perhaps this is due to the anglophile streak we see among many terrier owners – a glorification of all things British, with a latent suggestion that  American dogs and American quarry must somehow be inferior.  The royalist image of wealthy redcoats riding to fox is, after all, more attractive than that that offered by the American terrierman slogging through pastures dressed in overalls with a sharp spade over one shoulder.

That said, the terriers needed by both parties are exactly the same, and a proper dog for red fox is also a proper dog for groundhog, gray fox, and raccoon.  The fact that the majority of Kennel Club dogs on both continents cannot make it in the field has less to do with changing quarry or changing geography than it does with show ring standards that cloud the issue of size while at the same time giving the bulk of all show ring points to such non-essential characteristics as eye color, nose color, the lay of the ears and the carriage of the tail.

The good news is that even as England and Scotland move to ban fox hunting with dogs, hunting with terriers is beginning to take hold here in America. 

While the best days of the British working terrier may lay in the past, the best days of the American working terrier lie immediately ahead.  Those that would prefer to work their dogs in the real world, rather than fantasize about the nature of working dogs in a far off land, need only find a small terrier out of working stock to start their journey. 


Wasco Taxidermy Mount Manikin
16 inch chest






This is a picture of a fox den in Australia made out of an enlarged rabbit hole cut in a railway embankment. Note the oval shape where the fox has made the entry deeper to allow it to bolt while standing up. This oval den expansion will disappear 3 or four feet into the den entrance.

Another fox den, this one in Europe.
Again, note the oval shape.





Maryland Fox den made from groundhog hole.






Jack Russell exiting Virginia fox den. Two fox were bolted from this den. The picture below this one is the same den, but the entrance hole.